It’s Time We Knew
Female filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow has always been fascinated by masculinity — just look at her ‘macho’ body of work, which includes the Patrick Swayze-Keanu Reeves-starring Point Break (1991) and the Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), both films featuring an action-driven narrative, strong manly protagonists and brutal depictions of male-led violence. Her latest, Detroit, is certainly no exception, Bigelow’s gripping dramatic thriller — which is based around the infamous race riot that shook the city of Detroit in the Summer of ’67 — exploring male-dominated abuse of power and authority, the film also commenting on racial injustice and repression in the poverty-stricken African-American community, this at a time when housing, education and employment were at an all-time low.
The film centers on the Algiers Motel killings, which took place in Detroit, Michigan, on the night of July 25-26, 1967, the heinous crime occurring as part of the racially charged 12th Street Riot, this five-day urban revolt one of the most vicious and bloody civil unrests of the 20th century. When the picture opens, we are instantly transported some 50 years back into the ‘world’ of Detroit, this through an inspired prologue, a sequence set to delicately animated versions of Jacob Lawrence’s celebrated 1940-41 ‘Great Migration’ paintings, the narration — words penned by historian/ professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. — outlining the movement of Afro-Americans from the rural Deep South to America’s more industrial North, the intro, while setting the tone and providing some historical context, detailing the struggles and disappointments of the American black man.
From there, our story takes us into the early hours of July 23rd, where a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours speakeasy — hosting a ‘welcome home celebration’ for returning Vietnam War veterans — violently erupts out onto the streets, mobs of angry hoodlums ransacking stores, trashing property and starting fires, this altercation sparked by black men throwing bottles and punches at the panicky (mostly white) law enforcement. With local authorities, state representatives and emergency services unable to subdue the escalating pandemonium — the patience of the Afro-American people having reached a boiling point — Governor George W. Romney (via archived television footage) authorizes the Michigan National Guard and paratrooper forces to enter the district and intervene, the federal soldiers providing further aid and assistance; a scene in which young black Congressman John Conyers (Laz Alonso) attempts to calm an angry crowd, by way of a megaphone, demonstrates the sheer hooligan mentality that’d taken over the masses.
With the scene now set, Bigelow gradually begins to lay down the pieces, one by one, introducing the characters that’ll eventually cross paths at the Algiers Motel just two short nights after the rioting had begun, this shocking account the centerpiece of the picture. First up, we’re acquainted with callous officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), who, against police mandate, mortally wounds a fleeing black looter with a shotgun, the racist cop remaining ‘on active duty’ despite some now-pending murder charges.
Next up, we meet The Dramatics, an up-and-coming black rhythm-and-blues outfit who’d come to Motor City in hopes of scoring a record deal. Alas, mere seconds before their scheduled gig at a packed-out Fox Theater — the group set to take the stage after a lively performance of ‘Nowhere to Run’ by Martha & The Vandellas — the venue is instantly shut down, guests ordered to evacuate the hall due to the rising criminal activity outside. With rioters running rampant in the surrounding streets, the band consequently splits up, lead singer/ Detroit native Larry Reed (breakout star Algee Smith), along with his best friend/ manager Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), quickly seeking refuge in a seedy roadside lodge, the Algiers Motel, the mounting chaos proving impossible to make it home safely. It’s there where they bump into a couple of cute white ‘party girls,’ Julie Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever), who’d flown in from Ohio City, Colorado, to check out the music scene.
Eager for a late-night snack, the ladies move to one of the hotel’s annex rooms (which happens to have a kitchen) where they introduce Larry and Fred to their buds, Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), a couple of young guns drinking and clowning around with their friends inside. Displeased by Carl’s tomfoolery, Larry and Fred are prompted to call it a night, the men casually heading back to their quarters, Julie and Karen, also upset by Carl’s antics, re-locating to the room of Robert Greene (Anthony Mackie), an ex-Vietnam War soldier looking for work in Detroit. It’s then that Carl decides to stage a ‘harmless’ prank by firing a few blanks on a starter pistol out the window, these ‘gun shots’ mistaken as sniper fire by the closely stationed police and National Guard, who treat the shelling as a threat. This kerfuffle also alerts private-security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who’d been assigned to protect a nearby grocery store, Dismukes a decent black man trying to keep the peace with the Guardsmen positioned in the area.
When a squad of rouge lawmen arrive at the scene — officers Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole), led by the antagonistic Krauss — a forceful and sadistic interrogation ensues, the policemen — breaking protocol and procedure — conducting a vicious ‘death game’ in an attempt to intimidate the ‘shooter’ and draw out a confession; by sunrise, three innocent, unarmed men are murdered at point blank, with several other hotel residents brutally beaten and terrorized over the course of the night.
Written by regular Bigelow scribe Mark Boal, Detroit presents an up-close-and-personal account of a true American horror story, the film (the pair’s boldest collaboration to date) examining fear, confusion and anger (chiefly in proud, masculine men), and how these emotions, when distorted, can lead to cruel and callous inhumane behaviors, actions that can ruin lives in the blink of an eye. Based on multiple first-hand testimonies and accounts, the movie follows a handful of unrelated individuals as they diverge at the Algiers Motel on that ‘terrifying hot summer’s night.’ As the story horrifyingly unfolds, director Bigelow does everything in her power to ensure that audiences can’t see the incident as anything other than a sickening felony, even though the narrative itself is presented rather objectively — one, however, will never truly know how this real-life atrocity played out. Moreover, the aftermath is just as alarming/ disturbing, the latter portion of the picture commenting on the imbalanced and unfair ‘all-white’ justice system at the time.
Shot in a candid, pseudo-documentary style — think grainy shaky-cam and tons of sweaty close-ups — the gritty, handheld photography by Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker (2008), adds a visceral element to the already emotionally charged script, while the inclusion of archival images, video and audio recordings further heighten the drama, these enhancing overall authenticity. So, yes, Detroit is a technical tour de force — complete with funky Motown music, era-specific sets and swingin’ 60s fashion — but it’s not an easy sit-through, meaning that the movie is not designed for patrons to munch down on popcorn and ‘enjoy,’ the sheer relentlessness of this unsparing fictionalization (which runs at a whopping 143-minutes) perhaps a bit difficult for those more sensitive viewers to stomach.
Each of the cast members give raw and honest performances; British-born actor John Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), radiates as calm-and-composed pacifist Dismukes, an upright, moral man who’s literally in the wrong place at the wrong time, while an outstanding Will Poulter, The Revenant (2015) — who’s cast against type — is sure to give audiences chills as aberrant officer Philip Krauss, a nasty ‘law-abiding’ piece of work who believes that his navy-blue uniform (and the color of his skin) grants him unrestrained control and supremacy — come February, I’m sure the 24-year-old Poulter will get some major awards attention. In smaller roles, Anthony Mackie — who fans of Marvel may recognize as winged Avenger Falcon — and the lovely Hannah Murray, from HBO’s Game of Thrones (2012), impress as brutalized victims Greene and Julie, whereas rising-star Jack Reynor, Sing Street (2016), gives a nuanced portrayal of ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ Demens, a man easily influenced by his cold-hearted de facto superior, Krauss.
Honoring those sufferers and unsung heroes whose lives were forever tainted after the grueling Algiers Motel ordeal, Kathryn Bigelow’s unflinching vision is a well-timed piece of modern cinema, especially given the ever-growing tensions in today’s political climate, Detroit attempting to shed some light on a long-forgotten historical wrong. Just like the events of Iraq and Pakistan, which were surveyed in Bigelow’s excellent Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker before it, Detroit addresses another largely neglected but critical moment in America’s history, the film as much about masculinity as it is about racial inequity, Bigelow, who’s encouraging constructive dialogue, highlighting a need for change, particularly from our ego-driven male leaders.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner